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Suburban Landscapes: The Federal Housing Administrations’s Principles for Neighborhood Planning and the Design of Small Houses

Codified in the National Housing Act of 1934 (P.L. 73-479; 48 Stat. 1246), federal policy for privately constructed and financed single and multiple family homes shaped the character of American housing and suburban landscape in the mid-Twentieth Century. Garden City planning principles and naturalistic landscape design coincided in many residential communities approved for federal mortgage insurance by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in the 1930s. FHA standards for safe, self-contained neighborhoods and small, efficient low-cost dwellings institutionalized the ideal of suburban life that had been envisioned by several generations of American designers and established a foundation for sound real estate investment. They further embodied the goals of the Better Homes movement of the 1920s and reflected advances in zoning and subdivision regulation that had been advocated by city planners, community builders, and the real estate industry. FHA-approved and redesigned projects reflected New Deal economics and incorporated the emerging technologies of prefabrication, standardization, and economies of scale.

The creation of a permanent, national program of mutual mortgage insurance, under Title II of the National Housing Act of 1934 revolutionized home financing. The Federal government insured loans granted by private lending institutions for as much as 80% of a property’s value. Mortgages were to be fully amortized through monthly payments extending over 20 years. Interest rates were to be relatively low, not exceeding 6 percent at the time, and required downpayments were set at 20% of the cost of a home. Amendments to the Act in 1938 and 1948 and the Veteran’s Readjustment Act of 1944 liberalized the terms for home mortgages by lowering (and in some cases eliminating) downpayments and extending the payment period to 25 and eventually 30 years.

The driving force behind the 1934 legislation was to stimulate the building industry, to gain the confidence of private lenders including the nation’s largest insurance companies as well as local savings and loan associations, and to ensure a sound and solid foundation for private real estate investment. For FHA administrators and designers setting the national standards that would be used to rate neighborhoods and homes for loan approval, the design of safe and healthy neighborhoods and efficient small houses offered an unprecedented opportunity an opportunity to bring together the best practices of their respective professions and affect broad-sweeping change that would not only improve the quality of life for the average American family but also provide models for the growing metropolis of the future. FHA standards followed the established principles of landscape architecture and city planning, drew from successful garden city and curvilinear models, and reflected Clarence Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept which had been endorsed at the President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership in 1931.

FHA redesign of a neighborhood in Pontiac, MI, from FHA's Planning Profitable Neighborhoods (1938).

FHA’s Land Planning Division, headed by Seward Mott, used the legislation’s mandate as an opportunity to redirect the design of suburban America and to create conditions that would force public officials and planners alike to adopt planning measures and to abandon the rectilinear grid in favor of plans of curvilinear streets. This office translated desirable neighborhood characteristics into written standards and basic design principles that could be uniformly applied across the nation to the design of neighborhoods of small houses. The FHA not only approved or rejected plans they actually redesigned many of the neighborhood plats submitted for review and approval (see illustration).

FHA-approved plans, such as the one for a Pontiac, Michigan, neighborhood of single-family dwellings, fostered a sense of community by providing harmonious and interesting streetscapes, discouraging through traffic, and excluding non-residential uses. These plans made extensive use of cul-de-sacs, courts, and minor residential streets interlinked by collector streets. FHA’s curvilinear plans provided for long blocks of evenly sized house lots and streets of varied widths that were laid out in a hierarchy from perimeter access roads to cul-de-sacs. Such plans discouraged through traffic, eliminated dangerous four-way intersections, and offered an efficient arrangement of house lots, greatly reducing the cost of street construction and utilities.

The FHA set forth seven minimum requirements for new subdivisions:

  1. Location exhibiting a healthy and active demand for homes.
  2. Location possessing a suitable site in terms of topography, soil condition, tree cover, and absence of hazards such as flood, fog, smoke, obnoxious odors, etc.
  3. Accessibility by means of public transportation (streetcars and buses) and adequate highways to schools, employment, and shopping centers.
  4. Installation of appropriate utilities and street improvements (meeting city or county specifications), and carefully related to needs of the development.
  5. Compliance with city, county or regional plans and regulations, particularly local zoning and subdivision regulations to ensure that the neighborhood will become stable (and real estate values as well.)
  6. Protection of values through "appropriate" deed restrictions (including set-backs, lot sizes, minimum costs of construction).
  7. Guarantee of a sound financial set up, whereby subdividers were financially able to carry through their sales and development program, and where taxes and assessments were in line with the type of development contemplated and likely to remain stable.

In addition, FHA issued a set of "desirable standards," which, although not strict requirements, were additional factors considered in the approval process.

  • Careful adaptation of subdivision layout to topography and to natural features
  • Adjustment of street plan and street widths and grades to best meet the traffic needs
  • Elimination of sharp corners and dangerous intersections
  • Long blocks that eliminated unnecessary streets
  • Carefully studied lot plan with generous and well-shaped house sites
  • Parks and playgrounds
  • Establishment of community organizations of property owners
  • Incorporation of features that add to the privacy and attractiveness of the community

In 1936 FHA published Planning Neighborhoods for Small Houses as "a subdivision primer" setting forth standards for the design of new subdivisions that provided safe, livable neighborhoods and ensured stable real estate conditions that justified private mortgage lending and FHA mortgage insurance. The FHA encouraged large-scale operations, where development was financed and carried out under the direction of an "operative builder" who arranged for the purchase of land, the design of the subdivision plat, and the design and construction of the houses. Such large-scale operations offered a "broader and more profitable use of capital" and permitted the introduction of industrial methods that resulted in savings in overhead, construction, and merchandising costs." Developers were able to achieve the plan in a consistent and harmonious manner, and in addition develop "commercial services such as retail stores and gasoline stations necessary to the life of the new community."

Standards called for the careful selection of sites suitable for the type of development contemplated and recognized that the attractiveness of the subdivision, as well as the cost of preparing the land for occupancy, depended to a great extent on topography. Utilities were to provide "adequate supply of pure water" and modern methods of sewage disposal, preferably connected to existing public mains.

FHA's Planning Neighborhoods recommended that cul-de-sacs and courts "be fitted into the plan so that odd-shaped inaccessible remnants of a subdivision, which would otherwise have little value, are converted into desirable lots."

Elevations of neighborhood rights-of-way from Planning Neighborhoods specified the width of paved strips varying from 18 to 24 feet depending on the type of road and included four-foot sidewalks and eight-foot planting strips.

Gridiron street patterns were discouraged because they dispersed traffic evenly throughout the street system increasing traffic hazards, adding to construction costs, and creating a monotonous, uninteresting architectural effect. A hierarchy of roads was recommended, which included 1) major thoroughfares to provide quick and convenient access to principal centers; 2) minor residential streets where traffic was reduced to a minimum, eliminating wide intersections and following topography with the result "that an attractive and unforced curvilinear layout is secured at reduced improvement cost, creating interesting vistas and doing away with the monotony of long, straight rows of houses; and 3) cul-de-sacs, courts, and crescents which eliminated traffic hazards, cut down on paving costs, and reduced the cost of laying water and sewer mains.  

FHA standards provided recommended widths for streets, walks, and pavements based on the volume and character of traffic expected. The right-of-way for through streets was to be at least 50 feet in width whereas that for cul-de-sacs could be as narrow as 30 feet with a paved strip as narrow as 18 feet. The FHA suggested that the services of a landscape architect be retained. Recommended were street plantings of permanent shade trees such as red oak, pin oak, hard maple, American and English elm, sycamore, and American and European linden at forty-foot intervals on either side of the street and groupings of low shrubs such as snowberry, rosa rugosa, prairie rose, Japanese barberry, regal privet, and hawthorn.  

FHA recommendations called for the subdivision of house lots in sizes (ordinarily up to 5,000 or 6,000 square feet) and in shapes that assured "privacy, pleasant outlook, and attractive setting." Lot lines were to be drawn at right angles to street lines, corner lots were to be of generous size, and houses were to be attractively grouped in relationship to each other. Houses were to be in harmony with each other, and monotony and excessive architectural ornamentation were to be avoided. The FHA suggested ways to vary a limited number of house designs, stating: "variety and interest may be secured by sometimes having the end elevation and sometimes the side elevation toward the street, by the placement of the garages, and by varying the setback line and the planting so that interesting groupings are secured."

The design of house lot for "economy, livability, and convenience," illustrated in Principles of Planning Small Houses (1940), included house, driveway, and attached garage, front and side entrances,shade and fruit trees, lawn and garden areas, and inexpensive shrubbery.
[sketch] FHA's Planning Neighborhoods provided recommendations fro the design for neighborhood shopping centers which were located adjacent to, but separate from, residential streets and whose commercial activities could be controlled by deed restrictions.

On the value of zoning and deed restrictions to ensure neighborhood stability, Planning Neighborhoods stated: "Proper attention to such relationships will tend to establish the new neighborhood on a sound basis as regards its general environment, to preserve it from loss due to overdevelopment of certain types of land use, such as commercial and apartment areas, and to provide a reasonable permanence of the use for which the area is designed." Such concerns extended to the recording of neighborhood plats and the use of deed restrictions that controlled the density of development and the size of lots, prohibited offensive or annoying activities, set a minimum cost for construction, and established mandatory set-backs. Such covenants were to run with the land and be binding for a specified period of time, after which they would terminate or be renewed. Restrictions were enforceable through civil law suits brought before local courts by any other owner of property within the subdivision. (Note: FHA’s Underwriting Manual also recommended use of restrictions to maintain homogenous populations within subdivisions. In Shelley vs. Kraemer (1948), the U.S. Supreme Court determined restrictions excluding residents on the basis of race unenforceable.)

FHA House Type A

FHA House Type A floor plan

Promoting uniform standards for the construction of homes that many Americans could afford became a primary objective of the Federal Housing Administration. Through the approval of properties for federal mortgage insurance and the publication of standards, the FHA regulated the home-building industry for many decades. House designs, first published in the FHA’s Bulletin No. 4, Principles of Planning Small Houses in 1936, were updated periodically, and circulars such as Property Standards, Recent Developments in Building Construction, and Modern Housing addressed issues such prefabrication methods and materials, housing standards, and principles of design.

Through its Small House Program, FHA recommended five basic house designs in Principles of Planning Small Houses, 1936, which would become the industry standards during the 1930s for houses approved for FHA loan insurance. These appeared as in-fill in existing neighborhoods and as the basic units of new subdivisions that conformed to the standards set by FHA’s Land Planning Division. House A, the simplest of the FHA designs (two models and floor plan are shown above), became known in the home-building industry as the "FHA minimum house." Measuring 534 square feet, the prototype was designed for a family of three adults or two adults and two children. The house contained four rooms plus a bath: a small kitchen and larger multipurpose living room extended across the front of the house, while two bedrooms and a bathroom were located off a small hallway at the back of the house. The kitchen’s placement at the front of the house facing the street was an important departure from traditional layouts. Increasing the home’s efficiency, new labor-saving technologies were reflected in a kitchen equipped with modern appliances and a utility room with an integrated mechanical system that replaced the basement furnace of earlier homes.

House Type B
House Type C
House Type D
House Type E

Successively the five FHA house types offered a "range in comfort of living" and "slightly increasing accommodation" of space. Illustrated by simple elevations in one or two variations and a floorplan, each type was presented without nonessential spaces, picturesque features, and unnecessary items that would add to their cost, following the basic principle of "providing a maximum accommodation within a minimum of means, and, consequently, cost." Houses could be built in a variety of materials, including wood siding, brick, concrete block, shingles, reinforced concrete, stucco, or stone. While Houses A and B were simple two-bedroom, one-story designs, C and D offered the same accommodations with the bedrooms placed on a second story. House D also had the addition of an attached garage. House E, the largest of the houses, offered three upper-story bedrooms and could be built with a basement; it was illustrated with simple ornamentation of a classically-inspired doorway and a semi-circular light in the street-facing gable, demonstrating that such a house could be "attractively designed without excessive ornamentation."

Streescape illustration from the 1940 edition of Principles

The 1940 revision of Principles offered a dramatically different approach to illustrating sound principles for home design and construction. Praised for its livability, the one-story, two-bedroom "minimum" house was presented as a starting point from which many variations of houses could evolve through a flexible system based on expandability and variability. Factors such as orientation to sunlight, prevailing winds, and view became as important to house design as the efficient layout of interior space.


Elevations and floor plans from the 1940 edition of Principles

Interior spaces, most frequently the living or dining room, could be enlarged by extending individual rooms outward toward the street, to the rear of the lot, or to either side, creating an irregular floor-plan and a gabled-extension on the exterior. Fireplaces and chimneys were added as well as basements. The revised principles called for the standardization of the parts of a house, including plumbing, floor and ceiling joists, ceiling heights, pipes, ducts, closets, cabinets, windows, doors sashes, and even hardware. Standardization offered "economies in construction without loss in flexibility in planning." Many variations were possible using this system and garages in several models were integrated into the overall house design. The exterior appearance of houses of the same plan could be varied by reversing and revolving the plan, by using different materials and combinations of materials, and by introducing different roof types, entranceways, and window types.


 *This information is an excerpt from the National Register bulletin, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Residential Suburbs for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by Dr. David Ames, University of Delaware and Linda Flint McClelland, National Park Service.

Examples of FHA Houses Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Typical houses within the Edwards Historic District, Oklahoma City, OK

Edwards Historic District
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The Edwards Historic District is significant as an African American community response to housing segregation policies, and for its association with its developers, Walter J. and Frances W. Edwards, African American entrepreneurs. In 1937, the Edwards bought the land on which the district is located from a white developer. As part of the addition was still outside city limits, the city subsequently declined to provide utility lines or paving, and the couple paid for these amenities in 1937 when they began clearing the land. They hired an experienced construction foreman and directed him to hire and train young African American men as bricklayers, electricians, plumbers and carpenters as houses were built. Edwards Real Estate Investment Company sold the homes primarily to African American families; and for the first two years, 1937-1939, the couple personally provided financing at 6% interest to prospective buyers. After a considerable political struggle, in 1939 Mr. Edwards was at last able to persuade the FHA to approve mortgage loans to African Americans and by 1940, 40 homes had been completed and occupied.

Mesa Journal-Tribune FHA Demonstration House, Maricopa County, Arizona

Mesa Journal--Tribune FHA Demonstration Home
Maricopa County, Arizona

The Mesa Journal-Tribune FHA Demonstration House was built in 1936 by the local Mesa Journal newspaper with an FHA-approved loan. Equipped with all the modern conveniences and materials of its day (such as central air-conditioning and heating, copper water pipes, custom built-in cabinets, a copper roof, and an attached garage), the house was constructed to encourage the people of Mesa to use FHA-backed loans to build new small house construction in Mesa in the late 1930s. Editorial columns which appeared in the newspaper and advertisements placed in the paper by contractors who were constructing the home provide an unusually detailed chronicle of its construction.


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